When Joanne Lee Molinaro first went viral on TikTok, it was a little scary.
“I don't think there's really any way for at least a person of my vintage to be prepared for that,” Molinaro says. “It was a little frightening to have so many eyeballs on me.”
In search of something to do in the early days of the pandemic, Molinaro, a full-time lawyer at the time, started posting TikToks about life in the legal field or politics. She was a little worried about how clients or coworkers might view her videos, including that first viral video, a “clap-back” video. But when a video of her Korean braised potatoes also went viral, she saw an opportunity.
“I really leaned into food videos once I saw that so many people were enjoying them,” she says.
Now, she has over 3 million followers on TikTok, with another 650,000 on Instagram. Her recipes have earned her a James Beard Book Award nomination in the Vegetable-Focused Cooking category for her debut cookbook, The Korean Vegan.
Years ago, when she heard that people could win James Beard Awards for cookbooks and other books about food, “I said to myself, wouldn’t it be amazing if one day I wrote a book that was nominated for a James Beard? But it was like pie-in-the-sky, like, ‘Okay, Joanne,’” she says. “So to have my first cookbook nominated, it’s a very surreal honor.”
Molinaro, who was born and raised in Chicago but recently moved to California, has been vegan since 2016. She still works as a lawyer on an of-counsel basis, but she has switched to writing and creating content about food full-time, “veganizing” popular Korean dishes.
Many of the stories that she narrates over her cooking videos, as well as the stories she tells in her cookbook, are about her family, particularly her family’s immigrant experience. For Molinaro, food and family are inextricably linked. When she was recently making jeon, or Korean-style pancakes or fritters, on an Instagram Live, “instantly, I thought of how my aunt showed me this is how you make the jeon,” Molinaro says.
“All of these things, I can't not think about when I'm cooking,” she says. “But the interesting thing is, when you peel back one layer, you get these stories of talking about food with your family, the people who you feed, or the people who fed you.”
Peel back another layer, she says, and you might discover the motivation behind some of those stories or recipes. Molinaro asked her aunt–who helped her with a lot of the recipes in her cookbook–how she remembered all the steps and ingredients. Her aunt said she remembered it because her mother died when she was very young.
“She said, ‘I remember all this because I miss my mother so much and these are the only memories I have left,’” Molinaro says.
This is what food can do, according to Molinaro: it brings out the details about people with whom you stand by the stove or sit at the dinner table.
“It disarms you … And it disarms the people you're eating with because they're sitting there breaking bread with you,” she says. “That is already a level of vulnerability that I think many of us take for granted. And so we're already sitting at a table. Why not unlock just a little bit more and see where that takes you?”
@thekoreanvegan #storytime brought to you by @@eatjust #RealGoodEggs #JUSTEggPartner #foodtok #foodtiktok #koreanfood #전 #tofu ♬ Rain - Sadness
In her cookbook, Molinaro has a recipe for naengmyeon, or cold buckwheat noodles (see the recipe below), which is one of her father’s favorite noodle dishes.
“So many of the noodle dishes in the book are like, Oh, this is his favorite. No, this is his favorite,” she says. Her father made it for Molinaro and her brother all the time, but that doesn’t mean it was her favorite.
“I hated naengmyeon growing up because of my dad,” Molinaro says with a laugh. “He would make it all the time and he wasn't really good at it. It was super watery and had no flavor.”
Molinaro has since updated the recipe, combining two common naengmyeon varieties. There’s bibim naengmyeon, a spicy, mixed noodle dish, and then there’s mool (or “water”) naengmyeon, served in an ice-cold broth.
Molinaro’s version combines the best of both. She describes it as bright and invigorating, the cold broth perfect for a hot day, the flavor ideal for when you’re feeling down.
“That sauce is so bright,” she says, “When you see what goes into it, you get gochujang, you get pear, you get some acid, and you get sweetness, and all of it mixed together to create this beautiful red sauce. It's just going to make you feel peppy.” She has since made the dish for her dad, who loved it.
Like many recipes in her book, her naengmyeon has a deeper meaning for Molinaro, whose father was born in North Korea, where the dish was popular. He can’t return to the country of his birth, where his mother used to make naengmyeon for him.
“When you talk about the power of food,” Molinaro says, “[it has] the ability to transport people to places that they may not physically be able to visit for the rest of their lives.”
The following recipe appears in The Korean Vegan, by Joanne Lee Molinaro.
Naengmyeon (Cold Buckwheat Noodles)
This dish always reminds me of my father because it is one of the first things he taught himself to make on his own. Therefore, my brother and I were subjected to countless watery, bland, and overcooked naengmyeon iterations before my dad finally perfected it. What does the perfect naengmyeon taste like? Well, there are two varieties— spicy bibim (“mixed”) naengmyeon and mool (“water”) naengmyeon. The first is a flavor bomb— fiery, tart, and savory all at the same time. The second, mool naengmyeon, is refreshing, because the broth is served ice cold. I never understood the reason why the two versions couldn’t be combined to form a “more perfect” naengmyeon, and have discovered that no such reason exists! This naengmyeon combines the best of both bibim and mool nangmyeon for a complex but refreshing meal that you’ll perfect a lot sooner than my dad!
NOTES: Most Asian grocery stores sell naengmyeon noodles together with a packet for broth and sauce. There are two different varieties of naengmyeon noodles: mool (“water”) naengmyeon, which usually has much more broth, and bibim (“mixed”) naengmyeon. For this recipe, either variety will work, since you will not be using the broth or sauce packets. In lieu of adding ice cubes, you can also place the broth in the freezer for about 30 minutes, until it turns into almost a slush. By the time you add the noodles, sauce, and garnish, the slush will have just started to melt into a refreshing broth for your noodles.
For the Sauce:
1 Korean pear, peeled and cut into chunks
1/4 red onion
4 scallions, cut into pieces
4 cloves garlic
2 tsps grated fresh ginger
1/2 cup gochugaru
1/4 cup gochujang
1/2 cup brown rice syrup
6 tbsps sesame oil
1/4 cup rice vinegar
2 tbsps soy sauce
2 tsps salt
2 tsps freshly ground black pepper
For the Noodles:
25 ozs (720g) naengmyeon noodles (see Notes above)
4 cups Vegetable Broth, at room temperature
1/4 cup mirin
1/4 cup rice vinegar
For the Garnish:
1 Persian (mini) cucumber, sliced into 1/8‐ inch‐thick rounds
1 Gyerranmari, sliced into small strips
1/2 cup Baechu (Napa Cabbage) Kimchi
1/4 Korean pear, julienned
2 tbsps toasted sesame seeds
4 tsps sesame oil
1. Make the sauce: In a food processor, combine the Korean pear, onion, scallions, garlic, ginger, gochugaru, gochujang, brown rice syrup, sesame oil, vinegar, soy sauce, salt, and pepper and process until very smooth. Refrigerate the sauce. (The sauce will keep in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.)
2. Prepare the noodles: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the noodles and cook until the noodles are chewy, about 3 minutes. Drain the noodles in a colander and run under cold water until they are cool to the touch.
3. In a medium bowl, mix together the vegetable broth, mirin, and vinegar. Ladle the broth into four deep bowls (for serving). Add three to four ice cubes to each bowl (see Notes above).
4. Divide the noodles into four equal servings and place into each bowl of broth. Spoon 4 to 6 tablespoons of sauce (more or less, depending on one’s spice tolerance) over the noodles.
5. Garnish the noodles with the cucumber, gyerranmari, kimchi, and Korean pear. Sprinkle with the toasted sesame seeds and drizzle the noodles with the sesame oil right before serving.